Long before I had ever visited Belgrade, I had built up a negative impression. Maybe it was due in part to growing up with the Balkans war and slow death of Yugoslavia played out on the TV? Or maybe it was the old friend from school who had grown up there and would constantly lead me astray. Whatever it was, my preconception of Belgrade could not have been further from reality. Continue reading, 48 hours off the beaten path in Belgrade.
Belgrade is the capital of Serbia and the country’s largest city. It lies on the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, two of the most important rivers in central Europe. The city is undoubtedly old, as there were already people living here when the Celtic mob rocked up during the 4th century BC. After this, the Romans moved in (as they do) and the city was named Singidunum. During the Middle Ages the town swapped back and forth between the Kingdom of Hungary and the Serbian Despotate (of which it was the capital). In 1521 it was captured by the Ottoman’s, an occupation that was to last almost 400 years.
Arriving on the train from Montenegro at around 20:05, I was happy to be finally off the train. All I wanted now was a good meal, a few beers and a comfy bed. BUT…the train does not terminate in the center of town, it actually stops on the edge of the city proper at a long forgotten station called Topčider. The station building itself has quite a history. Built in the late 1800’s it was briefly used as the cities main station during WW1 before being destroyed by a bomb. Rebuilt in the 1930’s to include a “Royal” waiting room it was promptly destroyed by another bomb in WWII. Apparently it has sat idle for the past 30 years but was hastily brought back into service in June due to the decommissioning of the Belgrade Main Railway station (more on this later).
Somebody had obviously forgot to tell the bus and taxi service. It took me 20 minutes and much flailing of arms to convince a taxi driver to stop and take me into the center. After the said larger (and a very good Serbian dinner @ 5A Soba) I was happy to find that the bed in the local home-stay I had chosen was indeed very comfy.
Two strong coffee’s and a hearty Balkans breakfast under my belt I was ready to explore Belgrade. First stop, Kalemegdan Fortress. Located to the North-West of the old town, the fortress was once the “bastion” of Belgrade encasing the entire population. Thus, the history of the fortress tells the story of Belgrade itself. This is highlighted by the recently excavated section of the Northern rampart to restore the Ottoman era (Mehmed Pasha) fountain. During the excavation work they found remains of a guard post fire place from the 14th century, remnants of the Roman castrum (itself built on the foundations of an Iron age building), two urns from the Bronze Age and foundations of a Neolithic (stone age) campsite complete with bone and shell deposits.
Entry to the fortress itself is free, however they will try to extract money from you if you want to enter any of the cool bits like the “Roman Well” (which although a marvel of engineering was not, as it turns out, actually Roman). The grounds around the fortress make for a good stroll with views to the convergence of the rivers. Its easily worth spending a good 2-3 hours here.
Eat and Drink
Time for lunch so I wandered down Cara Dušana to a great little Pizzeria named Caesar. What it lacks in ambiance it more than makes up for in food quality and service with the wood fired pizza one of the best in the area. Cara Dušana itself is an interesting street at the lower end of town. Trams run down a cobble stone section on either side of the street, its also the location of one of Belgrade’s oldest buildings (from 1727) at #10. Rumours exist of secret tunnels under the building linking it to others under the fortress. A previous owner is on the record as saying during the 1941 occupation of the city by the Germans, a group of Wehrmacht officers arrived in a limousine and entered the cellar. In the next weeks, the tenants were not allowed to enter the cellar and there was a constant noise as the Germans hammered and drilled something below the building. As recently as 2010 journalists entered the cellar via the stone staircase that leads down for some 30m but were halted by a sea of sludge….but I digress.
If you are looking for something more grass roots, Skadarlija is more off the beaten path. A vintage street and urban neighborhood that cuts across the Eastern end of Cara Dušana. Its generally considered the main bohemian quarter of Belgrade. A Romani settlement until 1870, the whole locality was once referred to as the Gypsy Quarter or Gypsy Alley. In the early 20th century a host of prominent writers and actors, began frequenting the Skadarlija inns or kafanas. Three kafanas from this period still survive to this day and are worth a visit however the whole street was pretty quiet the day I visited (off season plus road works in the vicinity).
At the end of the street there is the Sebilj fountain, an ornamental drinking fountain which is a replica of the one found in Sarajevo. The lower end section of Skadarlija is known as the Skadarlija atrium. It is mostly occupied by a brewery that belonged to a distinguished Belgrade family before World War II that produced “Aleksandar” beer (yay), made from thermal spring water in the brewery’s backyard. The brewery closed in the late 1900’s and today sits idle (although its slated for re-development). Little known fact: When Bajloni began digging the foundations of his brewery in Skadarska around 1892, he discovered the bones of a mammoth and skulls of Neanderthal man.
24 Hours – Beer time!
The rear yard of the disused brewery is now home to a number of hip bars and clubs (access through a carpark off Cetinjska). Polet is an industrial/retro place which is a mixture of culture center, gallery and bar. Grab a coffee during the day or enjoy the retro music and literary nights. Zaokret is another good choice, more of a pub than Polet, it serves a number of good local craft beers and has a small beer garden which is perfect in the summer.
Catching up with some local friends we chose a small venue named Miners pub on Rige of Fere. This turned out to be a real hidden gem with a host of local craft beers (the Dogma IPA was probably the pick), great atmosphere, music and pinball machine. Located in a revamped cellar it has 10-15 tables under and 2 small tables outside on the street. Time to grab an after pub snack, Fat Boys in Strahinjića Bana did the trick. I’m not really a burger person but must say they were pretty good!
After another great Breakfast I set out to explore the East of the city. First stop, Jevremovac Botanical Gardens. This place is an Oasis in the heart of the city, its easy to miss (in fact I walked past it twice before venturing in). Jevremovac is located in the westernmost part of the Palilula neighbourhood bordered by Takovska, Vojvode Dobrnjca and the Boulevard of despot Stefan. The Japanese garden was probably my favourite part.
A short 20 min walk later, I arrive at the Tesla Museum. It’s located on the corner of Prote Mateje and Krunska. This is an great museum and a must for retro techies and Tesla groupies. With a rich collection of mementos and creations from this local genius, its very interactive and hands on. You need to time your visit to join a tour, they alternate between English and Serbian. Well worth a visit.
15 minutes from here we get to the ruins of the old Yugoslav Army Headquarters on the corner of Nemanjina and Knjaza Milo streets. Sitting as a lonely reminder of a black period in Belgrade’s past, the bombed out ruin is largely as it was at the end of the conflict. Put this in the category of “morbid tourist attraction”.
Continuing down Nemanjina we arrive at the Old Central Station. The last train rolled out in June 2018. The area around the station is being re-purposed as part of the new Belgrade Waterfront Project. The station building itself harks back to a forgotten era of train travel. Opened in 1885, it became a stop on the Orient Express route in 1888. It is slated to become a museum however there is still ongoing controversy regarding the closure.
Heading back to my homestay, I stopped at The Black Turtle for my last Serbian beer with a few locals – Next Stop, Zagreb.
Belgrade is an excellent destination if you want to support sustainable travel and get away from the mass tourism crowds.